Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Bottling the Forbidden Fruit: Marion Halligan's Fiction

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Bottling the Forbidden Fruit: Marion Halligan's Fiction

Article excerpt

MARION Halligan's writing dwells on the pleasures of daily life, and while readers can readily connect with this celebration of ordinariness, recognising in it patterns of our own existence, such subject matter can also provoke doubt, even distrust. A strain of residual Puritanism in Australian culture means the pursuit of pleasure is still suspect, while continuing doubts as to whether suburbia is an appropriate subject for serious literature can result in writers who explore it being dismissed as bourgeois. Halligan, who insists that 'suburbia is one of the great achievements of the human spirit' (Taste 15), is quite unapologetic about her emphasis on domesticity: 'the domestic is what I know and that's where all the important things happen, birth, death, marriage, all that stuff' (Molloy 117). Along with representing the enticements of suburban life, she also records its dark underside, demonstrating how the apparently ideal suburban enclave is less secure than its inhabitants imagine, and how its exclusivity creates outsiders whose predicaments contrast painfully with the comforts of those within.

Food, its preparation and consumption, is central to Halligan's vision of domestic life. It is the subject of two non-fiction works, Eat My Words (1990) and The Taste of Memory (2004), and features prominently in her fiction. In her essay on food in ttalligan's writing, Elaine Lindsay comments that the author 'may be consciously using food as a language with which to talk about spiritual aspirations and insights, much as a musician uses music to address the soul, or an architect uses design to render visible spiritual longing' (292). Food is certainly crucial in Halligan's work, carrying a wide range of meanings along with the spiritual dimension Lindsay notes. She relishes the way it is interfused with language: 'Sometimes having a word like greengage is almost as good as the real thing, but then sometimes because the word is so good you desire the object' (Halligan, Taste 70).

Before publishing novels, Halligan regularly contributed articles on food to newspapers, and magazines like Epicurean. For her, recipes offer readers more than the particular dish they describe how to make. 'There were plenty of recipes around, but I was interested in stories as well, in words and their meanings, in histories and anecdotes, in food as a conversation that people had with one another' (Taste 1). Fiction writers have long recognised food's narrative possibilities. E.M. Forster regards it as one of the five facts of life a novelist must deal with, along with birth, death, sleep and love, though he claims its function in novels is mainly social.

   It draws characters together, but they seldom require it
   physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless
   specially asked to do so. They hunger for each other, as we do in
   life, but our equally constant longing for breakfast and lunch does
   not get reflected. (52)

Halligan, who claims 'Literature is full of meals' (Taste 194), accords food greater prominence than this, believing its description lends necessary substance to a writer's work. She lists many famous literary repasts including the pork kidneys Leopold Bloom fries for breakfast in Joyce's Ulysses, the Boeufen Daube dispensed by Mrs Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, and the liver eaten by the Portnoy family in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. Although at one point she decided to omit all reference to food in her own fiction, she confesses, 'I found I couldn't do it. Quite impossible. The kind of novels I write need food' (Taste 93).

Although food generally has positive connotations in Halligan's fiction, it can also indicate human vulnerability and threatened danger. Death and its power to undermine daily living pervade the author's work, counter-pointing the representations of a peaceful, ordered suburban existence. Eat My Words notes the violent language used to describe culinary processes:

   Look at this list of verbs associated with the preparation of food:
   pound, beat, strip, whip, boil, sear, grind, tear, crack, mince,
   mash, crush, stuff, chop. … 
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